Mapping a New Vision for Docent Tours
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
Lippitt House is pretty much as new as museums get. It opened its doors as a museum in 1993 and only hired its first director in 2013. One of the first things we had to tackle is the program most traditionally associated with any historic site: the docent-led tour.
As a staff, we began by talking about our vision for tours. We wanted to develop an historic house tour that kept people listening, asking questions, and sharing their knowledge and views. We wanted to create experiences that people would remember and not just facts. We also wanted to tap into issues that are important to people today and engage visitors with the big ideas that are most relevant to Lippitt House’s history (namely, civic engagement, immigration, industrialization, and design). Finally, we didn’t want the tours to be cookie cutter. We wanted each docent to be empowered to develop their own tour and to be flexible enough to go with the flow on tours and not stick to a script.
Tours We Liked and Tours We Didn’t
We continued this visioning process by thinking about the historic house tours that made the greatest impact on us. What had we liked about them? Which tours hadn’t we liked and why?
We loved historic house tours with enthusiastic, knowledgeable docents who were energized by questions and conversation and who didn’t hesitate to admit when they didn’t know something. We loved docents who could tell a good story. We appreciated docents who were clear-eyed about the people who lived in the historic sites and who didn’t just want to tell the stories of the wealthy residents but also domestic servants, slaves, laborers, and others who are often left out of historic site tours.
We were bothered by docents who stuck to a script and gave us the stink eye if we dared to ask a question. We were put off by long lists of facts that contained not the slightest hint of a narrative arc. And we were offended by tours that tried to side-step uncomfortable facts or excuse the morally wrong turns of history rather than be forthright and honest about historic figures – warts and all.
We shared evaluations and reporting we had read on the subject of docent tours. Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s book Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums* chronicled many visitor complaints about docent tours: docents who said the house’s owners were good slave owners, docents who asked questions with right answers (“Who knows what happened in 1861?”), and docents who detailed minutiae about the objects in the house. An article in the Wall Street Journal also stuck with me. It was titled "Docents Gone Wild." It reported on the trials of museums dealing with docents who touch the art, make up facts, and are even rude to visitors, in one case mocking their lack of knowledge of obscure facts. We knew from this that the first task in shaping tours would be in recruiting the right docents. We were lucky enough to find extremely experienced, knowledgeable, likable and flexible docents. Now on to the training!
Mapping Our Tours
I brought to the table my experience in art museums where teaching is very object-based and led by questions. I knew this couldn’t be the basis of a whole historic house tour, but I wanted to see if and how these methods could be infused. Finally, I reached out to an old art museum colleague who had become the Director of Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum – a place where I had always had a welcoming and inspiring experience.
Miriam Bader shared the Tenement Museum’s method of “mapping” tours. For each room of their tours, their educators wrote the “big ideas” or “essential questions” that they wanted visitors to explore. Then they noted the objects, questions, oral history, primary sources, and facts that could support those big ideas. This method seemed perfect for our own tour planning which we wanted to ground in our new interpretative plan that identified the big ideas for our institution.**
Our docents took to the mapping technique immediately. We asked them each to start by mapping a room and then to share their mapped rooms with the whole group. Throughout the sharing session, we kept the focus on the big ideas and the multi-sensory methodologies that could support them. For instance, in the Reception Room, considered a feminine room for the Lippitt women, our maps explored life for the women in the house – including the domestic servants. We talked about the pressures on Victorian-era women to keep up with demanding social rituals and maintain the domestic sphere – the “cult of domesticity” – as well as a popular topic in women’s magazines of the time: “the servant question.” This desire of upper-class women like the Lippitts to find the perfect servant was also related to recent waves of immigration and the attendant cultural clashes and discrimination against women from different backgrounds. To talk about the idea we used images like the one above from a wonderful book by Jennifer Pustz titled Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants' Lives at Historic House Museums.***
Now it’s Your Turn…
What do you value in a docent tour? What methods does your historic site use to help docents develop their best tours? We’d love to hear from you!
*Vagnone, Franklin D. and Deborah E. Ryan. Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums. Routledge, 2016.
**Lippitt House Museum: Docent Tours is based on a map by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, NY.
***Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants' Lives at Historic House Museums. Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.